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ONCE-BOOMING RESORT COULD THRIVE AGAIN

On a panel above the service counter of Betty's Cafe, one of the few Main Street businesses that shows any kind of modernity, are a dozen photographs that depict the glory days of this Lake Ontario shoreline recreational community.

It's not easy for the casual observer to define the details of what in the years before and after World War II drew thousands here to picnic, swim, dance, enjoy the amusements and patronize Olcott's bars and restaurants.

And those that can remember are mostly white-haired.

"We had a ballroom that could accommodate 3,000 people," said Sylvia Krueger, 69, the proprietor of Cal's Tavern, the once fabled dance and drink business that her late father began. "In those days, Cab Calloway, Artie Shaw, Guy Lombardo, Harry James and other big bands would play here. People paid $1.25 to get in.

"After the war, the dance hall was taken down. People stopped coming. We couldn't pay the taxes. When the trolley from Buffalo was removed, when more people had cars that took them other places and 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds were cut off from legal drinking, people stopped coming.

"Olcott used to have 11 bars; now there's only four. I work the bar seven days a week except when my daughter helps. Today, I may have two customers by noon. I am just getting by." The amusement rides went, too. "Nobody could afford the liability insurance. My sister still runs a roller skating rink, but she wants to sell. She's older than me."

Mrs. Krueger's and Olcott's current plight were verified by a walk along Main Street's 1984 covered sidewalk, where more storefront are for sale or rent than housing businesses.

A German tourist who on the day before had been at crowd-packed Niagara Falls and somehow arrived in Olcott, said simply, "There's nobody here."

But there's real hope that Olcott may be in for a turnaround: The fishing business improved this year, and Krull Park, the big county park, is getting major new people-drawing facilities.

"Olcott has one thing to offer -- Lake Ontario," said James J. Johnson, 57, who over 14 years put $1 million in his Harbor Resort motel, campgrounds, gas station and tackle shop, all of which largely serve fishermen.

"My businesses in 1997 rose 25 percent above last year's. We've had a few poor years because of a bad press about the safety of Lake Ontario salmon, trout and bass. Many people throw back what they catch, and those that are kept, if filleted properly, contain minimal amounts of bad stuff.

"And people don't eat fish that often. I am an optimist; you must be if you are in business. This year, our five fishing derbies drew 2,200 entries. We figure that each entry may have four people, and each person spends about $45 a day."

Mrs. Krueger said Olcott needs developer-investors.

Newfane Supervisor Timothy Horanburg believes that business investors will show up once people come.

"Olcott can recover, but in a different way than before and maybe not to the extent of its past," he said.

Johnson agrees. "You can't live on nostalgia," he said. "You have to keep building better mousetraps."

The town-operated Olcott Marina is a 20-year-old "mousetrap." It has 49 daily slips that rent for $10 or more depending on boat size, a $4 launching ramp and season-long moorings that cost $700 to $800 for larger boats and dockside gasoline service.

"It's a big reason why fishermen come to Olcott," said Horanburg. "And it's self-supporting."

But the marina operation and the gasoline sold there have whipped up controversy.

"It's wrong for a town to compete with private enterprise," said Roderick Hedley, who has seen his Olcott Harbor docking and gasoline trade almost vanish.

Similarly, James McDonough, a longtime Olcott marine operator, has watched his gasoline business disappear.

Hedley and Horanburg do not get along. Hedley complains that the supervisor has never consulted with him, has harassed him with clean-up summonses and is trying to drive him out of business. Horanburg says that Hedley has missed many opportunities to make money at his boatyard by becoming involved in other matters.

One of Hedley's current projects is gaining state permission to explore the Ontario, a British warship that sank in 1799 off Niagara County on its maiden voyage.

Horanburg said the Olcott Marina, unlike Hedley's and McDonough's operations, offers boaters 24-hour gas service. That will end next Sunday when the marina closes for the year.

Shoreside fishermen can still walk on the federal pier that juts 100 yards into Lake Ontario by walking the fenced path that Hedley donated to the state. Mrs. Krueger said, "People will return to Olcott if there's a reason to come."

A start was made in 1984 when the Town of Newfane financed the Lakeview Village Fair, a mini-boardwalk overlooking Lake Ontario that houses 18 specialty shops.

During the summer, they were open seven days a week. Now the shops are open weekends only.

"Tour buses regularly stop at Olcott," Horanburg said.

Krull Park, adjacent to Olcott on Route 18, is another magnet. Its wooded grove long has been a favored picnic area and entrance to Olcott beach.

But now a 200-acre expanse is being fitted with eight soccer fields, two outdoor ice skating rinks and an "airport" where hobbyists can fly their gas-powered, remote-controlled model aircraft.

"We hope that adult and young people soccer teams will come to Krull Park and Olcott for their games and league play," Mrs. Krueger said.

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